What are the benefits of machine control in construction?
By Andy Brown04 May 2022
Magnus Thibblin, President, Machine Control, Hexagon, tells Andy Brown about lagging rates of adoption and why retrofit or factory fitted is one of the big debates in the sector.
The benefits of machine control are plentiful – it means that operators don’t have to just rely on their judgement when performing a task as the parameters can be preset and hard data is instantly available. Despite this, the take up of machine control in the industry is relatively low.
“The feeling that we have overall is that we are not in the adoption rate that we need to be on all machines worldwide. We are under what we believe is logical,” comments Magnus Thibblin, President, Machine Control, Hexagon, on a video call.
Thibblin – who used to work for one of the largest construction companies in Scandinavia – points out that it is hard to generalise with this though as different countries in the world have different adoption rates.
What is machine control?
As a general rule, so-called developed countries have a higher adoption rate than emerging countries, but even here the variances can be significant. In North America there tends to be a higher adoption rate on ‘blades’, for bulldozers and motor graders, while in Europe the adoption rate is higher in excavators although some European markets – such as France and Germany – have larger markets for dozers and thus a higher adoption rate for them.
In Scandinavia there are a lot of excavators fitted with machine control, representing probably the highest rate of adoption in the world. There’s also drilling rigs and other solutions that go into the many different phases of construction.
It is also not the case, universally speaking, that the ‘big’ contractors have adopted this technology and the smaller ones haven’t. “In many places in the world, we are still coming into contact with medium size customers that are trying to get into the technology,” says Thibblin.
“It’s almost that you’re coming into a clean situation where they need help with everything: setting up how they work, how they change the way they do projects.”
Factory integration vs retrofit
There are two ways that machine control can get onto a machine: it can either be installed onto the machine as it is being assembled or retrofitted afterwards. Out of the two options retrofit is the more common, but Thibblin says that factory integration has advantages.
“Integration in the machine side will give you more benefits,” he says. “The key here is what you can do then in conjunction with partnerships, you can see how we bring in additional value that actually synergises between the machine and the technology.
“This is something we think that we can develop with many OEMs because we believe, in the end, that the customer will select an open system, but also a system that has additional features. It could be anything from track slip, for instance, depending on the load on the blade, it could be so many things. It will be different additional extras that comes from different dealers or OEMs in the partnership.”
The number of machines that are being produced ‘naked’ of machine control is much higher than the amount that have it installed. This means that, for the considerable future, the retrofit market will be a very important one for Hexagon and other companies.
“We know that the after-market, the retrofit market, will be there in different areas of the world, in different sizes of machines. There will be two things [retrofit and factory integration] going on at the same time.”
Even though adoption rates are not as high as Thibblin – and indeed the wider industry connected with construction technology – would like them to be, he says that the adoption rate has accelerated quickly over the last few years, and he expects this to continue. In part, this will be driven by ISO standards.
Machine control standards
In terms of machine control, ISO is a set of standards that OEMs and tech companies sign up to, ensuring that the data they produce will be the same standard. This means that data from different companies and software packages can easily communicate with each other – key for all contractors and rental companies with mixed fleets.
“We believe that openness will bring more value,” he says. “That means that whatever we do, we have to think about what the value is for the outcome for the customer. These ISO projects are putting a level playing field in place, which means that we are going to have the same data formats, the same protocols, the same communication protocols, everything.
“My job is not to make it hard, but to make it easy and smart for the customer. I am very happy about those initiatives and this will also change the business because it’s going lower the bar for certain customers to enter.”
As in all walks of life, making something easy for the customer is key and ensuring data from different sources can talk to each other should help increase machine control adoption to more ‘logical’ levels.